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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Grasping the Parts, Missing the Whole: THE WORLD IS FLAT, Thomas L. Friedman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: March 2005

Thomas L. Friedman is in love with the Internet and broadband connectivity. He is infatuated with the notion that a schoolchild can enjoy the world’s biggest library at the click of a mouse. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to Friedman that readers enjoying the world’s biggest library discover after half-an-hour of web searching that they can easily prove his analysis on the benefits of globalization to be short-sighted, and in many places, completely false.

The World Is Flat is a bestselling tome on the positive impact of outsourcing on the global community. Friedman assumes that most readers are wary of outsourcing, as many American citizens have lost their jobs and must relocate to new communities. Unfortunately, their new jobs could be outsourced a year later. After all, according to Friedman, the ongoing trend is not to outsource specific jobs, but entire industries.

Much of The World Is Flat focuses on significant numbers of Indians working for American companies but still living in India. This is possible due to ample low-cost bandwidth that stretches from the U.S. to India. Friedman interviews the CEOs of Microsoft and Dell, two companies employing a large number of Indian workers. Both CEOs are positive in their view of Indian workers. Friedman points out that due to our significant time difference with India, a manager can assign work to an Indian computer programmer, go to bed, and in the morning, like magic, the work is completed. The CEO pays the Indian programmer a quarter of an American programmer’s salary.

What Friedman completely ignores are the realities of the workplace. What if there is an error in the code? What if marketing wants a small but crucial last minute change? According to Friedman, Americans are not interested in computer science, so the manager will not be able to make the change. Due to that same lovely time difference, the manager is unable to contact his Indian programmer to make the change. Unless the manager stays in the office until midnight, the two cannot communicate in real time. Repeat this process a few times, and while the CEO may love his bottom line, delays due to miscommunication plus employee attrition due to managers who want to go home to their families before midnight can become costly. Friedman may love high-speed instant messaging, but both parties need to be awake to enjoy broadband technology.

Friedman makes another crucial mistake when he attempts to defend outsourcing with a weak economic argument. As America loses more jobs to India every year, “total exports from American-based companies—merchandise and services—to India have grown from $2.5 billion in 1990 to $5 billion in 2003. So even with outsourcing, India’s growing economy is creating a demand for many more American goods and services. What goes around comes around.”

While many Republicans are proponents of Friedman’s standard trickle-down economic analysis, a reader with his or her mouse at the ready will quickly discover Republican Senator John Kyl’s assessment of our trade relationship with India. In July 2005, Senator Kyl published a report on America’s exports to India, concluding that “India maintains high tariff rates on imports… India also maintains price controls on many commodities… Finally, there has been great concern over India’s poor record of intellectual property rights, resulting in $468 million in losses to U.S. companies due to trade piracy…. India is a major producer of counterfeit pharmaceuticals.”

Web surfing readers will also discover that as recently as 1995, India did not allow the importation of American consumer goods into their country. Thus, Friedman’s statistics primarily reflect India’s importation of American coal and industrial equipment. He relies heavily on the notion that Indian consumer demand will increase consumer product innovation, thus creating new markets that will in turn create new American jobs. But this will take decades to truly impact the American job market, and in the meantime, hundreds of thousands of American jobs will be lost. Friedman may see the “deadening” of wages and the American job market as necessary but painful steps toward progress, but American families canceling their DSL service so they can put food on the table may not agree with him. Indeed, Friedman chooses to profile many Indian middle class workers who are benefiting from globalization, but he does not interview any American worker lower than a CEO. Perhaps he had trouble finding one who agreed with him.

Friedman approaches globalization via advances in technology like a kid in a candy store; he tries to convey a feeling of wonder to the reader, perhaps forgetting that when it comes to technology, you either have access or you don’t, and that access depends on your finances. Often, he chides Americans for being too comfortable. We should work longer and harder to stay competitive. He may be right, but by refusing to research the difficulties 830,000 laid-off Americans must contend with, Friedman fails to analyze globalization in any meaningful way, and ends up its empty-headed, misguided cheerleader.

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